Can Acupuncture Treat Depression?

Note: This is for informational purposes. This is not a systematic review, and shouldn’t be what you base your treatment decisions on. Make your health care decisions in conjunction with your health care provider.

Have you ever tried acupuncture?

Though the practice of placing needles at specific points of the body for therapeutic purposes has been around for thousands of years, acupuncture is not, as many believe, simply a folk practice or sham treatment. In fact, it has been scientifically studied and found to be effective for many different conditions.

An example of that research? In scientific paper called “Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Individual Patient Data-Meta Analysis,” the authors (Vickers et al.) combined data from 29 clinical studies with a total of 17,922 participants to analyze whether acupuncture was an effective treatment for four types of chronic pain. Here’s what they found: Patients receiving acupuncture had less pain, both when compared to no-acupuncture control groups and when compared to groups that received “sham” acupuncture. They conclude: “Acupuncture is effective for the treatment of chronic pain and is therefore a reasonable referral option [for health care providers].”

Several months ago, my then-therapist suggested that I might try acupuncture to help with symptoms of depression. I hadn’t heard much about acupuncture being used for mental health. Her suggestion made me wonder: Can acupuncture also be used effectively to treat depression?

Why I was interested

Speaking personally, I’ve found acupuncture to be helpful in the past. The first time I decided to try it was after almost a year of mysterious stomach pain and gastrointestinal distress in my mid-twenties. My doctors did a lot of tests and had me try a bunch of different medications, but nothing seemed to help.

Trying to find something that might help, I started looking into acupuncture. I learned that acupuncture can be somewhat expensive (a lot of prices I’ve seen are similar to getting a massage), and it generally takes multiple sessions before you see improvement. Then, however, I found a “community” acupuncture clinic in my area, where I could receive treatment for as little as $15 a session.

Community acupuncture clinics have lower prices because they are more efficient, with large, quiet rooms filled with recliners where lots of people are receiving treatments at the same time. You don’t need to change or undress. The acupuncturist talks with you quietly, then only inserts needles in your arms, hands, feet, and legs (as far as your sleeves and pants roll up). For me, it was finally something that helped, and since then, I’ve suggested acupuncture to others—especially in an affordable “community” setting.

I thought trying acupuncture for depression was an interesting suggestion—I thought of acupuncture as something to manage pain, and I wasn’t so sure it would have an effect on mental health. I wanted look at what research there has been on the topic, and see if there actually is evidence that acupuncture is an effective treatment for depression.

Finally, I have sat down and done that. Here’s what I’ve found out about what research says about using acupuncture for treating depression.

What I found out

I looked at several studies—mainly meta-analyses—to investigate the question of whether acupuncture can be an effective treatment for depression specifically (I didn’t look at information on other mental health issues, like anxiety). I’ll include the titles, authors, and links below, and add a [number] to the text to reference the paper I’m talking about. I’m going to summarize the common findings in these studies.

First, though, two quick notes about the nature acupuncture.

One, speaking from personal experience, acupuncture sessions are actually very relaxing. They are a chance to quietly rest, and they take place in very calm, meditative environments. I would argue that just the nature of acupuncture treatment sessions could be very helpful for mental health for some individuals, especially those who take advantage of the session to mentally and physically relax and de-stress.

Two, also of note, acupuncture is not the most convenient thing. You need to do many sessions to see results. Sessions can be time-consuming (mine are usually around an hour), and, as I noted above, can be expensive. Just a couple of things to keep in mind!

Now, here’s what the research says about using acupuncture to treat depression:

1. We still need more high-quality research

The first thing I learned on this topic, and I think one of the most important take-aways, is that there actually isn’t a whole lot of research on using acupuncture to treat depression. There are studies, including high-quality randomized trials of this treatment method, but not all the studies published on the topic are of this level of quality. Also, there simply aren’t a very large number of studies, and many don’t have a ton of participants. This theme—that there isn’t enough good data on this topic—came up in many of the sources I looked at [1] [4] [5] [6].

Interestingly, there are a lot more studies from Asia on this topic—acupuncture originated in Asia, and is more widely practiced there. Some of the systematic reviews I looked at included studies written in Chinese [2] [3], and one included Korean-language studies [2], but many only looked at English-language research. This means that we might already have more information on this topic, and just have a language barrier!

To sum up: We don’t totally know for sure yet how well acupuncture treats depression, and more future research will help us better answer that question.

2. It looks like acupuncture is very safe—likely even safer than taking an antidepressant

Several sources I looked at for this little investigation rated adverse side effects of acupuncture quite low. Study [1] sums these up, stating that “there were few [adverse] events and most were mild, such as pain, bruises, or discomfort at acupuncture sites.”

Another systematic review I found looked specifically at acupuncture during pregnancy, concluding “Acupuncture during pregnancy appears to be associated with few AEs [adverse events] when correctly applied” [7]. Also of interest was one paper that stated, “The incidence of adverse events in acupuncture intervention was significantly lower than antidepressants” [4].

To sum up: It looks like acupuncture is quite safe, and has relatively few adverse side effects.

3. There is scientific evidence that acupuncture does more to treat depression than doing nothing—and may even do as well as taking an antidepressant

Two systematic reviews I read (including one meta-analysis) looked at acupuncture as “monotherapy,” where it’s the only treatment being used. Both found data that indicated receiving acupuncture does more to treat depression than receiving no type of treatment at all [1] [4]. One of these noted that the statistical evidence was of “low quality” [1]. Another noted that they found sham acupuncture did not perform statistically better in its effect on depression than actual acupuncture (suggesting the results could be due to a placebo effect) [4]—though another meta-analysis found the opposite when it came to sham acupuncture [2].

One systematic review found data comparing acupuncture to taking an antidepressant, concluding “acupuncture as monotherapy was comparable to antidepressants alone in improving…symptom severity of MDD [major depressive disorder]” [4]. There is also a clinical practice guideline report from the American College of Physicians [5] cites two studies that showed that acupuncture did just as well in treating depression as taking the anti-depressant fluoxetine (Prozac) did, though they describe this evidence as “low-quality.”

To sum up: There is evidence that acupuncture can help with depression, especially when compared with receiving no treatment at all. It may even do as well as taking an antidepressant.

4. There is scientific evidence that doing acupuncture while taking an antidepressant does more to help with depression than taking an antidepressant alone

Three of the papers I read compared data on doing acupuncture in addition to taking an antidepressant versus taking an antidepressant alone [2] [3] [5]. The answer? All of them found data that indicated doing acupuncture in addition to taking an antidepressant did more to relieve symptoms of depression than taking an antidepressant alone did, though one of